Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Sandy County Almanac

"All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts." -Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold is well-known in the world of conservationism. Leopold was born in 1887 and died prematurely in 1948 while fighting a brushfire on his neighbor's farm; he was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and A Sandy County Almanac is his most enduring work. When today's critics of industrialized farming speak about the problem with ridding crops of their biodiversity and planting uniform crops, they speak of the dangers of "monocultures" and the need to return to raising animals and crops in "polycultures." The premise among such writers is that the biodiversity of the prairie has a lot to teach us about the health of ecosystems and their interdependence on humans and really all creatures, to respect some of the inherent limits and mechanisms of the world; Leopold calls this need "A Land Ethic," Christian people might simply call it responsible stewardship, Reformed people, a world that is covenantal in nature.

Here are some of Leopold's thoughts:

"For a biotic community to survive, its internal processes must balance else its member-species would disappear. That particular communities do survive for long periods is well known: Wisconsin, for example, in 1840 had substantially the same soil, fauna, and flora as at the end of the ice age, i.e. 12,000 years ago. We know this because the bones of its animals and the pollens of its plants are preserved in the peat bogs. The successive strata of peats with their differing abundance of pollens, even record the weather; thus around 3000 B.C. an abundance of ragweed pollen indicates either a series of drouths, or a great stamping of buffalo or severe fires on the prairie. These recurring exigencies did not prevent the survival of the 350 kinds of birds, 90 mammals 150 fishes 70 reptiles or the thousands of insects and plants. That all these should survive as an internally balanced community for so many centuries shows an astonishing stability in the original biota. . . .

What is the most valuable part of the prairie? The fat black soil the chernozem. Who built the chernozem? The black prairie was built by the prairies plants, a hundred distinctive species of grasses, herbs, and shrubs; by the prairie fungi, insects, and bacteria; by the prairie mammals and birds, all interlocked in one humming community of co-operations and competitions, one biota. This biota, through ten thousand years of living and dying, burning and growing, preying and fleeing, freezing and thawing, built that dark and bloody ground we call prairie.

Our grandfathers did not, could not, know the origin of their prairie empire. They killed off the prairie fauna and they drove the flora to a last refuge on railroad embankments and roadsides. To our engineers this flora is merely weeds and brush; they ply it with grader and mower. Through processes of plant succession predictable by any botanist the prairie garden becomes a refuge for quack grass. After the garden is gone, the highway department employs landscapers to dot the quack with elms and with artistic clumps of Scotch pine, Japanese barberry and Spiraea. Conservation Committees en route to some important convention whiz by and applaud this zeal for roadside beauty.

Some day we may need this prairie flora not only to look at but to rebuild the wasting soil of prairie farms. . . . A little repentance just before a species goes over the brink is enough to make us feel virtuous. When the species is gone we have a good cry and repeat the performance.

The recent extermination of the grizzly from most of the western stock-raising states is a case in point. Yes, we still have grizzlies in the Yellowstone. But the species is ridden by imported parasites; the rifles wait on every refuge boundary; new dude ranches and new roads constantly shrink the remaining range; every year sees fewer grizzlies on fewer ranges in fewer states. We console ourselves with the comfortable fallacy that a single museum-piece will do, ignoring the clear dictum of history that a species must be saved in many places if it is to be saved at all."

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